Chemical or nerve agents exercise a peculiar hold on the imagination. Unlike kinetic attacks, where the threat is at least tangible, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons remain elusive. There is something especially horrible about being attacked by something you cannot see.

As the use of CBRN weapons increases, governments and defence departments have been tasked with developing robust and effective countermeasures to protect the public and military personnel.

In March, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a £48m investment in a new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre to maintain the country’s “cutting edge in chemical analysis and defence”.

The facility will be located at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) site at Porton Down near Salisbury, where scientists identified the military-grade Novichok nerve agent used to attack former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on 4 March.

“Recent events have shown that the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threat has continued to evolve,” a MoD spokesperson says. “We have seen the use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria by both the Assad regime and Daesh, nerve agents used in the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in Malaysia, and most recently in the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.

“In response, the UK military provides equipment and training to ensure its forces are well prepared and appropriately protected against the full range of chemical, biological and nuclear threats. The military also trains to operate this equipment in a CBRN environment, and Exercise TOXIC DAGGER is a recent example of this.”

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Be prepared: Exercise Toxic Dagger

Exercise Toxic Dagger is the largest annual chemical warfare exercise in the UK, involving 40 Commando Royal Marines and personnel from the Dstl, and supported by Public Health England (PHE) and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE).

Toxic Dagger enables CBRN specialists from Dstl and AWE to create realistic exercise scenarios based on the latest threat information. Completing training and exercising against these scenarios tests the Royal Marines’ proficiency in the methods they employ to detect, assess and mitigate a CBRN threat.

“Working with Dstl means we have the most up-to-date information and a realistic exercise,” says Major Rob Garside of 40 Commando Royal Marines. “This ensures we are well prepared for a CBRN operating environment.

“It is vital we can make rapid decisions and are able to protect and support specialists who come in to deal with any incident. On operations, these specialists are on hand to advise and we must ensure we already have a strong understanding of their capabilities and what they require of us as a military force.”

The three-week programme includes company-level attacks and scenarios utilising CBRN vignettes, concluding with a full-scale exercise involving government and industry scientists, and more than 300 military personnel.

Leading edge: inside the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory

Collaboration in the shape of information-sharing between the British Army and Dstl – an executive research and development agency of the MoD – was critical to the success of Toxic Dagger.

“Anything we do requires us to develop and harness relationships across the defence organisation, but I think in this area specifically, because the threat is a technical one [and] it’s a scientific one,” explains Lt Col Paul Maynard, commanding officer, 40 Commando Royal Marines.

“The ability for us to reach out to organisations with greater specialist skills than ours across the military organisations, particularly within Air Command with No. 20 Force Protection Wing and others across the British Army [is important]. But I think the relationship that is of most importance to us is the one with Dstl.”

Dstl has supported Toxic Dagger for four years, writing all the vignettes – or scenarios – used during the exercise and providing a reachback capability to offer the Marines with operational, tactical and strategic scientific advice, should they need it, when dealing with a major CBRN event.

“40 Commando would be first on the ground in the event of a CBRN incident,” the Dstl lead for CBRN exercises said. “We ensure they’re up to date on the latest threats and make the exercise truly realistic. They not only have to provide a fighting force in an unstable environment, they must also be able to assess the scene and know what they’re dealing with. That’s where Dstl, PHE, AWE and the Defence CBRN Centre come in, as we provide the technical information the Marines require.”

Defence mechanisms: the new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre

The new Chemical Weapons Defence Centre cannot produce weapons as the UK is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, as Dr Michelle Bentley, senior lecturer at the University of London, points out, the Convention does allow signatories to develop defences against attack.

“The new centre will have access to all the chemical agents used in weapons – like sarin or the Novichok nerve agent used against Skipral – so scientists can develop defence mechanisms such as vaccines,” she tells the Defence Post. “Scientists are allowed to work with chemical agents, as long as it is for peaceful, commercial, or defensive purposes.”

Defence Secretary Williamson also announced that high-readiness troops are to be offered anthrax vaccinations in case they are deployed to areas where there is a risk of infection from the bacteria. However, Bentley told the Defense Post she was sceptical about the motivation behind the move.

“I would need to see more evidence that vaccinating troops against anthrax should be a priority,” she said. “At the moment, I can’t see what this would achieve beyond operational prudence and a PR trick to make it look like the UK Government is taking action on chemical warfare.”

“Sarin and nerve agents are the most popular weapons at the moment,” she added.

Foreign investment: CBRN mitigation from Kuwait to Australia

The UK is by no means the only nation investing in CBRN defence systems. In 2015, the Kuwait National Guard received an automatic warning and reporting system from Saab capable of detecting, identifying, warning, monitoring and reporting CBRN hazards from fixed or mobile positions.

In July 2017, Saab, along with its Kuwaiti partner Bader Sultan & Bros, delivered the world´s first integrated national chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear  centre to the country. That same month, the Australian Department of Defence announced it was investing A$300m ($229.9m) in cutting edge equipment to protect soldiers from CBRN threats.

The CBRN threat encompasses everything from poisoning or injury caused by chemical substances, including traditional (military) chemical warfare agents, to exposure to bacteria, viruses, biological toxins and radiation. Recent events, from Salisbury to Syria, have confirmed the threat is very real. With Exercise Toxic Dagger and renewed investment in R&D, including the new base in Salisbury, the UK MoD is showing it takes this emerging threat to the public and military personnel seriously.